The RRJ recommends you check out “When Their Shifts End, Uber Drivers Set Up Camp in Parking Lots Across the U.S.,” in Bloomberg News.
In a recent story about ride-hailing company Uber, Bloomberg News technology reporters Olivia Zaleski and Eric Newcomer dispense with the silicon valley jargon that so often infests the tech section of business-focused news sites. Instead, they shift attention to another perspective on the so-called “gig economy,” and give readers a series of human portraits written in simple terms. It’s the kind of seemingly typical business story that completely blindsides you as you read deeper.
The piece begins with German Tugas, 42, who drives for Uber 14 hours a day, 5 days a week. He is one of several drivers who sleep in their cars at the Marina Safeway parking lot on San Francisco’s north side. The narrative then moves across the country to Walter Laquian Howard, 53, who spends most nights sleeping at the “Uber Terminal”—a 7-Eleven parking lot near the JFK Expressway in Chicago, where other drivers congregate in the early hours of the morning.
As with any fair tech piece, Zaleski and Newcomer give a nod to Uber representatives, who give what seem to be rehearsed lines about the company offering “choice” and “flexibility” to users and employees. But the writers reframe the quotation as an example of what Uber does best. People sleeping in their cars seem like the sharing economy is reaching its logical endpoint, and the Uber television spot featuring a happy “sometimes-driver” are a foil for the reality of this technology on the people who rely on it to make ends meet. The whole piece reads like a sad punchline to an analysis offered a couple years ago by comedian Bill Maher:
“We’ve all become so good at scheming, cheating, venting, raiding, gouging, and just plain fucking each other that we woke up one day with ‘the sharing economy’—where the one thing we’re not sharing are the profits. Somehow they forgot to create an app for that,” he said during the closing segment of a show in 2015.
The piece also includes photography worthy of the vignettes they point to. The photos by San Francisco-based photographer Carlos Chavarría are reminiscent of Lewis Hine’s factory photos during the industrial revolution. One photo of Tugas sitting on the back of his car, next to a pillow and sleeping bag, is especially illustrative of the Uber life. Much of the world is going through a work revolution now, but it is hard to see because the value of that labour has become so entangled in software and the systems that software enables.
As one Twitter user pointed out, the piece takes a critical glance at the labour side of Uber without analyzing the housing price problem that underlies so much of why drivers are turning a “side job” into a main source of income.
Worth a read but it’s a story about housing costs as much as Uber. We should be talking about $500B SF housing lobby not just “Uber$69B omg” https://t.co/vdIx5W3dlz
— Ivan Kirigin (@ikirigin) January 23, 2017
But beyond the value of hearing the stories of the Uber parking lots, there is an opportunity here to consider more seriously the costs of convenience. After taxi drivers at JFK airport went on strike last weekend to protest the Trump administration’s immigration ban, Uber turned off surge pricing. The decision sparked backlash, and the hashtag #DeleteUber started trending in response to what many critics allege was the company’s attempt to profit from a work stoppage. Major news websites quickly published instructions on how to delete Uber from smartphones, and the social media outrage ensued.
Rather than harness that outrage into a deeper look at the effects evidenced by the Bloomberg story, users of the app simply turned their sights to ride-hailing company Lyft—a newer, apparently more socially-conscious and progressive version of Uber, according to the Bloomberg writers. Zaleski and Newcomer note that “Lyft, unlike Uber, restricts how many hours drivers can work in a row: After 14 hours, the app makes the driver take a six-hour break.”
— Celeste Ng (@pronounced_ing) January 29, 2017
Startup culture seems quick to use the phrase “disruptor” as a way of praising the way advanced technologies have created new markets, and have made life better. But Newcomer and Zaleski quite rightly ask, at times indirectly, whose lives are actually being made better? What are the costs of that disruption?